The Idea of the Middle Class: White Collar Workers and Peruvian Society, 1900-1950 is a 266-page book authored by D. S. Parker and published in University Park, Pennsylvania by Pennsylvania State University Press in 1998. The book gives a detailed history of Lima’s middle class in the period between 1900 and 1950.
Parker gives a reflectively inventive and comfortably familiar assessment of the Latin American Society, specifically the Peruvians. His clear account follows the creation of the middle-class, its economic and cultural aspects, its political activity, and the way in which it evolved as Lima’s demographic and economic growth changed the city’s labor structure. For these grounds, The Idea of the Middle Class enjoys a wide audience from diverse population groups: economists, social historians, among others.
Parker analyses Peru’s middle class community by combining the techniques of social historians with interest on language as he examines the factors that led Peru’s white-collar employees to identify themselves as members of a special middle class. He follows the foundations of this new class identity and demonstrates the long-term effect that the phenomenon had on Peruvian economy, politics, and customs.
The Idea of the Middle Class centers on the intricate interaction between ideas and structure, between the personality of white-collar employees and how state mechanisms strengthened and articulated that personality. White-collar employees, locally known as empleados, viewed themselves as privileged members of the society, separate and superior to the blue-collar masses, known as obreros.
The beliefs of this middle class was not a universal idea aimed at restoring Peru’s image in a democratic bourgeois revolution, instead, the middle-class’ aim was to guard their privileges and hence their social dissimilarity through political means. Therefore, the middle-class’ plan led to a struggle to employ state mechanisms to strengthen, articulate, and guard their priviledge, instead of creating an alliance with the lower-ranked members of the society to depose the oligarchy.
The distinction between the privileged and unwashed masses had been created by the colonialists to indicate a disparity in moral worth (Parker 24). Superior status was demonstrated through a distinguished family legacy, an excellent education, a light skin tone, and correct dressing code. Parker informs us of the vagueness of using race to define one’s social position among the Peruvians (Parker 26), in this system, whites and mestizo (of Indian and white descent) occupied the highest level (42).
The separation between the empleados and obreros is initiated with their relationship to the nobilities. Empleados were the permanent employees in firms that were dominant in Peru’s economy. Their jobs demanded that one be literate and have elementary mathematical capabilities, as well as a reputable conduct for interaction with the public. On the contrary, obreros were temporary, unskilled employees, and had no direct contact with the business bosses.
To maintain one’s status as an empleado, one had to dress and eat appropriately, and live in prescribed locations, besides, the spouse should not have been employed and the children ought to have attended private schools. These social demands meant that the empleados suffered from inflation more than the obreros. These expectations were later changed and political demands were used to identify empleados (Parker 18).
Political demands used to categorize Peruvians were stated as law 4916 in 1924. In these laws, only empleados were assured of a 3-month severance in cases where one was fired without notice, and a payment of two months’ wages for every year in which one was employed. Besides, the employees were to be given life insurance and disability allowances (Parker 105).
Parker mentions that these labor policies led some obreros to reclassify their status as an empleado, while the new status did not come with material gains, it improved one’s status in the society. In the Peruvian society, status mattered more than material wealth, and the author corroborates this statement by informing us of students’ unwillingness to take up blue-collar jobs regardless of the pay (132).
Politically, the social and economic pressure felt by the empleados turned into support for Alianza Popular Revolucionaria Americana (APRA), the leading political party. Empleados were attracted to ARPA due to two factors: nationalism and racism. Through APRA, empleados felt their jobs were secure since the party campaigned against employment of foreigners, besides, APRA denounced firms that either underpaid or exploited empleados, thereby strengthening their support among the middle class (Parker 173).
Overall, The Idea of the Middle Class gives an intriguing outlook of the creation of a different type of middle class; one based on retaining difference rather than conquering inequality. However, the weakness of Parker’s work is found on its lack of wider theoretical connections, from being drawn on historiography rather than on political science or sociology.
Parker’s explanation of the consumption patterns of the empleados could have been easily comprehended had he used Weber’s comprehension of a status group rather than from Marx’s idea of class. Weber’s theory states that an individual’s association to the ownership of the means of production is normally the foundation of group identity. The status group recognition of the empleados would have been further strengthened by the Latin American tradition of conexiones (connections).
In the Peruvian system, the probability of success is determined by who you know, such acquaintances will assist you in acquiring material wealth, jobs, and even a spouse. Under such circumstances, the empleados’ close connection with their bosses appears as less an outdated desire for status and pride, than a practical defense of their life success.
Therefore, in building his assessment, Parker challenges a generation of intellectuals to reconsider their thoughts on the formation and classification of social groups.
While The Idea of the Middle Class explains empleado identity, it also brings up vital questions for dependency theory. The author observes that small-scale businessmen did not define the values of the empleados because the petit bourgeoisie were foreign and hence not easy to organize.
Social historians contend that no social class has bred more debate than the middle class, and nowhere has the debate been felt than in Latin America. This class is blamed for failing to steer the Latin American economy to greater strides, a role that the same group has carried out in other regions.
Besides, the group is also blamed for failing to instill democracy and progressive ideas in the region, for example, in Peru, the empleados sought government support instead of monitoring it activities. This failure can be attributed to the social pressures placed on them because of being members of the empleado.
Parker provides a rich account of the lifestyle, values, and customs of this upcoming class and the persistence in seeking economic stability, propriety, and revolution in the Peruvian system. Using skillfully written biographical profiles based on a number of archival articles, Parker achieves success in enlivening the empleados in a way that creates an urgency to flip through the pages by using primary sources to support his statements.
Parker also utilizes a number of records drawn from data collected during the period between 1900 to1950, for example, on page 136, he gives unemployment statistics for selected occupations drawn from the 1931 statistics. These records indicate that unemployment percentage for masons was the highest, followed by carpenters, while farm workers were the least employed persons.
On page 77, he gives the reported occupations of ARPA members from the 1931 to 1945. Again, he gives empleado marriages in Lima by race from 1932 to 1947, records that clearly indicate that a higher percentage of empleados belonged to white/white and mestizo/mestizo marriages as compared to mixed marriages.
Parker also gives a ‘typical’ empleado’s (Rodrigo Gonzalez) household budget in 1949, Rodrigo earned 600 soles (described as a meager amount in 1949), his monthly budget adds to 572 soles. Other primary sources include the composition of Lima-based employees of a Peruvian company (1930) and a table on the Distribution of empleados by Sector and Gender, 1940 (Parker 212).
Parker provides a careful assessment of how the 20th century invention became an essential part of the Peruvian culture. This brilliant and painstaking examination of Peruvian white-collar employees gives a near-perfect mix of the material, cultural, and political elements of class formation.
Parker, David Stuart. The Idea of the Middle Class: White Collar Workers and Peruvian Society, 1900-1950. University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998.